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Adrienne Rich: Leaving Her Mark on America

Posted: 05/22/2012 3:51 pm

If an artist ever changes the world, then that artist accomplishes the task by changing the way individuals see or hear or think. If any American artists achieved this goal in the last half-century, then Adrienne Rich was among those rare few.

When Rich died on March 27, the world lost a great thinker, feminist and activist. Yet Rich was a poet above all, and she was such a substantial one that Rich-the-poet remains alive and well. She became immortal long before her death. Her poetry, her prose, and her ethics changed the way her generation and those younger than her viewed the role of the poet in politics.

Her work was innovative, unconventional, and at times controversial. Her poems are the fiercely personal testament of someone who saw the world with the eye-for-detail of a painter, the anger of an outsider, and the tenderness of a lover. Her style was her own: Her free verse often disguised her formal rigor; her willingness to structure poems around an argument or insight instead of lyricism sometimes disguised the strength of her Ear; and her experiments over six decades of publications could make a casual reader lose sight of her interest in tradition. It was precisely that interest in tradition that prompted her to become one of the most eloquent critics of the patriarchy she witnessed in the literary tradition and the literary community. Over the years, critics have justly celebrated her work, and those who dismissed her for her tendentiousness have found themselves on the wrong side of history. The more time you spend with the poems, the more precise and revelatory they seem.

*****

Rich's life story was not only an influence but also a direct source of material for both her poetry and prose. In the essay, "Blood, Bread, and Poetry," Rich told the story of her juvenile years this way:

I was born at the brink of the Great Depression. I reached sixteen the year of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The daughter of a Jewish father and a Protestant mother, I learned about the Holocaust first from newsreels of the liberation of the death camps. I was a young white woman who had never known hunger or homelessness, growing up in the suburbs of a deeply segregated city in which neighborhoods were also dictated along religious lines: Christian and Jewish. I lived sixteen years of my life secure in the belief that though cities could be bombed and civilian populations killed, the earth stood in its old indestructible way. The process through which nuclear annihilation was to become a part of all human calculation had already begun, but we did not live with that knowledge during the first sixteen years of my life. And a recurrent theme in much poetry I read was the indestructibility of poetry, the poem as a vehicle for personal immortality.

Some of Rich's themes are succinctly revealed in that autobiographical passage: attention to the nuances of identity, attention to the political context that shapes personal identity, and sensitivity to the suffering of others. In the way she refers to her father's attempt to shelter her from an awareness of anti-Semitism, she also touches on her ambivalence about the man who would be the greatest influence in her psychogenesis as a poet and an opponent of patriarchy.

Arnold Rice Rich came from a prosperous Jewish family in the South. He was a celebrated pathologist at Johns Hopkins Hospital, and he was able to give Adrienne a privileged private-school education that was supplemented and influenced by his tutelage, his ambition, and his admiration of poetry. Arnold himself was influenced by his father Sam Rich, a businessman in Alabama, and by his close relationships with his mother Hattie and his sister Cecile, a namesake for Adrienne Cecile Rich. Sam, Hattie, and Cecile remained in Alabama when Arnold went to Baltimore because of his education and his career. Cecile eventually married the Jewish cotton magnate Leonel Weil. Adrienne Rich's upbringing was upper-middle class, but the Rich family had been heavily influenced by experiences with anti-Semitism in the South, and this influenced Rich's work both directly and indirectly. Her own troubled feelings about her father's assimilationism, about her mother's identity as a Southern WASP, and about the anti-Semitism she witnessed on a scale that ranged from the personal to the genocidal, led her to describe her identity as "torn at the roots" or "split at the root" (in "After Dark" and "Readings of History", respectively). In the poems "After Dark" and "Sources", she tried to come to terms with her anger at her father, and in the essay "Split At the Root" she eloquently discussed Jewish identity. Arnold was unquestionably a deep and lifelong influence for her, and if she resented him as a patriarch, she also expressed warm feelings for him in poems like "The Stelae" (1969) and "Baltimore: A Fragment From the Thirties" (1985).

Her father was not her only relation who became a character in her poems. The varied experiences, freedom, and lack thereof, of American women in a century of social and political transition was her major subject. She put herself squarely in the middle of her poems in major books like Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law (1967) and Diving Into the Wreck (1973). She also wrote moving love poems to her partner Michelle Cliff, carefully examined her life as a mother of three sons, and wrote eloquently about relationships with other women in her family in poems such as "Grandmothers" (1980). In that poem, she describes each of her two grandmothers as "widow... and no matriarch," and she writes with fondness and sympathy for each woman. She could humanize a character quickly and deftly, as when she describes Hattie Rich with the lines: "Your sweetness of soul was a mystery to me, / you who slip-covered chairs, glued broken china, / lived out of a wardrobe trunk in our guestroom / summer and fall, then took the Pullman train / in your darkblue dress and straw hat, to Alabama, / shuttling half-yearly between your son and daughter."

*****

While she was still an undergraduate at Harvard, Rich won recognition in the Yale Series of Younger Poets, an award that is given each year to just one American poet under the age of forty, and which was at the time judged by W.H. Auden. In Auden's introduction to her first book, A Change of World (1951), he described her work as "neatly and modestly dressed." Auden, a fine critic as well as a great poet, was presumably impressed by Rich's formal confidence and concern for tradition. It would not be long, though, before Rich would upend expectations for the role of the poet in American life.

Her third book, Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, introduced a willingness to be unconventional in both form and content, and to be controversial and even polemical in the voice with which she approached that content.

The Irish poet Eavan Boland told me that, before Rich, mid-century American poets took for granted "an inward and more purist poetry that didn't engage in activism. She was a unique figure of her generation because she insisted on the consequences of being a poet."

The American former poet laureate Robert Hass, in a 1999 Washington Post essay about Rich and her poem "Shattered Head" from the then-new volume "Midnight Salvage," describes Rich as writing poetry with "more salt in it and more darkness" than the work of other contemporaries, and he characterizes Rich as a poet with "a restless need to confront difficulty."

"Shattered Head" is unquestionably the work of a poet's poet, and the "need to confront difficulty" is partly evident in the poem's themes: the coexistence of beauty and violence, of life and decay, of love and loss. Yet that restless need to confront difficulty also is a matter of Rich's lifelong willingness to turn new corners, and her refusal to shy away from difficult social questions. For Rich, the impulse to make poetry and the urge to participate in social dialogue are related callings, and the relationship involves ethical obligations. Boland averred that Rich saw social engagement for poets as "a responsibility and not a choice."

At a time when society looked askance at nonconformity, she was openly a lesbian, a vocal feminist, an anti-war activist, and a critic of others in the literary community and the American Left for their acquiescence to a culture that dehumanized too many of its citizens. oland said: "She found the need to break many barriers of decorum in American life to be the person that she was and the poet she needed to be, including barriers of sexuality, conformity, political compliance, and silence. That breaking with those decorums becomes a major subject of her work in Diving into the Wreck and The Dream of a Common Language."

*****

It is not hyperbolic to say that Rich's courage has made a permanent mark on American poetry, the American academic world, and American politics. In a broad sense, Rich's legacy includes influencing American society's changing positions on gender roles and on homosexuality; influencing American academe's more open posture towards use of personal narrative and personal identity; and American poets' willingness to take social stands, including those thousands of American poets who stood together publicly against the Iraq War. She will also be remembered for her rebuke of the Clinton Administration's social policies when she refused the National Medal for the Arts.

Rich understood too the limits of the political changes that could be wrought by words and ideas -- that writing and activism are not about changing society directly, but rather about changing people so that those people may change society. In the essay "Arts of the Possible" (1997), she wrote: "Writers and intellectuals can name, we can describe, we can depict, we can witness - without sacrificing craft, nuance, or beauty. Above all, and at our best, we may sometimes help question the questions." She loved other artists who helped question the questions, and she was alert to the political potential of other artistic media. In poems like "Pierrot Le Fou" (1969) and "Shooting Script" (1970), she seemed to think of Jean-Luc Godard as a kindred spirit, and she riffed eloquently on his work. Decades later, she maintained an interest in the undercurrents of poetry and politics in the visual arts, and she expressed it in poems like "Rauschenberg's Bed" (2000).

Some of the fellow artists who would be well-positioned to comment as colleagues on the impact of Rich's work, writers like Audre Lorde or Gwendolyn Brooks or Denise Levertov, unfortunately predeceased her. Levertov was a significant influence and friend for Boland and Rich both, and Boland like Rich and Levertov has spent a significant part of her writing life in California's Bay Area. Boland said that it was important to recognize Rich's friendliness and her concern for a poetic tradition that dealt in connections between private lives and the public life of a nation:

She was a very warm, approachable person. I met Adrienne Rich many years ago in London. That was where I first met her, in '84. She said then that one of the great influences on her was the Irish poet Yeats. Yeats lived in a very public world, he had a very powerful sense of the role of the poem in the public life of a place, and you can see how that carried down into her work. I think there's one other point that sometimes gets a little bit overlooked. She is sometimes discussed as a polemical poet or a political poet as if that came from her feminism alone. What is overlooked is that she is the most Whitmanian of the poets of her generation.... Walt Whitman lived at a very stirring time, a time of civil war, a time of enormous pressure on language and imagination in America. He believed in being a national poet. Adrienne Rich believed in that tradition, and she believed in being a national poet. If you look at a poem like 'North American Time,' you can see the connection to Whitman and her concern for the public role of the poem.
*****

The best way to remember a dead poet is to read that poet's own work. Rich was a great poet of drama, narrative, and occasion, yet she was also a first-rate elegist. When her friend David Kalstone died in 1986, her poetic response was a fine reflection on culture, nature, and individual mortality. It is one of many great works for which we may remember Adrienne Rich. Click here to read "In Memoriam: D.K."

"IN MEMORIAM: D.K."

A man walking on the street
feels unwell has felt unwell
all week, a little Yet the flowers crammed
in pots on the corner: furled anemones:
he knows they open
burgundy, violet, pink, amarillo
all the way to their velvet cores
The flowers hanging over the fence: fuchsias:
each tongued, staring, all of a fire:
the flowers He who has
been happy oftener than sad
carelessly happy well oftener than sick
one of the lucky is thinkng about death
and its music about poetry
its translations of his life

And what good will it do you
to go homne and put on the Mozart Requiem?
Read Keats? How will culture cure you?
Poor, unhappy
unwell culture what can it sing or say
six weeks from now, to you?

Give me your living hand If I could take the hour
death moved into you undeclared, unnamed
--even if sweet, if I could take that hour

between my forceps tear at it like a monster
wrench it out of your flesh dissolve its shape in quicklime
and make you well again
no, not again
but still....

 

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